Those big yellow school buses have been trudging along for over a month now, so you know it’s time to start preparing your gardens for winter. It’s a good time to work outside: the bugs are less numerous and it isn’t so cold that you will be miserable in an hour.
I recently pruned my Japanese red maples (Acer palmatum). We all know that sugar maples pump the sugary sap out of the soil in the spring, but did you know that all maple trees send out a lot of liquid in the spring, even if it’s not the sweet stuff? For this reason, spring is not a good time to prune. Now is a much better time.
I attended a pruning workshop in 2019 at the Shin Boku Nursery in Wentworth, NH Palmer Koelb has been growing, pruning and selling trees formed in the Japanese tradition for over 50 years. Some of his nursery stock is decades old and everything is beautiful.
One of the things I learned in this workshop is that Japanese red maples are better formed over time. It is better to do a small pruning every year or two than to wait 10 years and have to cut large branches. I’ve been told that I should never use a saw on a Japanese red maple, apparently they don’t respond well to removing large branches. Hand pruners are the best.
So what did I do? I reigned at the height of my trees. I like that they stick out about eight feet, so I looked for branches that were growing skyward and cut them into a lower fork, one hidden in the foliage. I also removed the foreign foliage and small branches inside the trees, opening up the center of the tree so that the interesting branch shapes are visible. These trees, by their very nature, are not dominated by a single straight trunk, and I want to see the structure of a tree. I remove the clutter, and rub the branches.
This is also a good time to shape all of your hydrangeas and prune them to keep them the size you like. If you want to grow a new hydrangea to be upright, now is a good time to prune the descending branches, and even plant a central branch to be the “leader” growing upwards.
I like to collect flowers to dry them indoors. Most of us can’t afford to buy flowers from a florist for the table every week, so picking flowers now that look great in a dry vase is a good alternative. All hydrangeas will provide beautiful blooms now, provided you pick them before the frost, which causes them to turn brown.
My favorite hydrangea is the one called “Pink Diamond”. It produces lots of large panicles of pointy flowers that start our white and turn pink. In a dry vase, the pink will fade a bit, but will stay pretty pink all winter, like other hydrangeas. Pink Diamond’s stems are stiff and erect on the bush and will not collapse like others like “Annabelle” do when it rains.
Unlike lilacs and forsythia, hydrangeas bloom late in the season, so you won’t lose any flowers next year if you prune now. They bloom on stems that grow in the spring. I like to leave flowers on all winter to remind myself that summer will eventually come.
Grasses and grains are now blooming and can also look great in a dry vase. I grew an annual cereal this year called black millet and recently plucked some stems and put them in a dry vase. Millet produces small seeds on narrow “ears”, much like corn, but without the outer leaves. It is found in birdseed mixtures, and I ate it as a porridge while serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa. This year I bought a few plants from a nursery, but will start a lot from seeds next year. “Purple Majesty” is probably the name of the variety I planted.
I repotted annuals that I want to bring back before winter, rather than waiting until the afternoon before the first frosts. I potted some “Diamond Frost” Euphorbia which I bought in small pots last spring and planted in the ground. It is a delicious plant that has tiny white flowers all summer long. As a “Proven Winner” plant, it is a registered trademark and is not sold by seed.
Diamond Frost is a beautiful houseplant that continues to bloom indoors all winter long. It prefers a bright windowsill, but will survive almost anywhere as long as you remember to water it regularly. Then, in the spring, he can go outside again – and at no cost.
Every fall, I dig up at least one rosemary plant and bring it indoors. I like to do this in early fall so that he can get used to being in a pot while sitting in the garden where he was in the ground. This allows him to have less changes in his environment at a time. Later, I will wash it well with a hose in order to eliminate aphids or other pests before bringing it inside.
Do not use fertilizer now for houseplants that come indoors. A plastic or enamel pot will retain moisture better than an unglazed terracotta pot, so if you’re a lazy drinker, select these.
Leaf raking can wait until later, after all the leaves have fallen. But get out there and start cutting back on housework on sunny days, even if that means playing workaholic. And if you missed my article on the Asian jumping worm problem, head over to my website, Gardening-Guy.com.
Henry is the author of four gardening books. Contact him at [email protected] or by mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.